Head in the right direction: Mental health and wellbeing in the spotlight


06 March 2023

Across Australia, dedicated teachers are at the front line of a growing crisis in student mental health and wellbeing. Australian government statistics show that over two in five (44 per cent)1 Australians aged 16-85 will experience a mental health concern during their lives, with 20 per cent experiencing a mental health concern in the previous year. “Teachers are telling us, anecdotally, that the proportion of their students who have significant learning problems or mental health issues, is on the increase,” says former TAFE teacher David Terauds, now an organiser with the Queensland Teachers’ Union. Research backs up these reports that the problem is growing, with a major study by ANU researchers released earlier this year showing a significant increase in the proportion of people aged 18-24 experiencing high levels of psychological distress, from 14 per cent in 2017 to 22 per cent in 20202. And as we approach the second anniversary of the COVID pandemic, the fallout from the associated isolation, lockdowns and stress on learning is impacting both students and their teachers.

Increased teaching load

“We’ve seen a significant growth in the sheer numbers of students that teachers are supporting, particularly in the apprentice and trainee space,” says AEU federal TAFE president Michelle Purdy, also a TasTAFE Aboriginal Support Officer. With numbers in some courses climbing to over 100, teachers face time pressures that limit their interactions with students both in block and on workplace visits, Purdy says. “It’s hard enough for teachers to fit in the everyday demands of their job, and when there’s an increasing number of apprentice or traineeship students presenting with mental health issues, teachers do not necessarily have the skills to deal with that,” she says. “Teachers do their best to provide support to those students on top of a heavy teaching load, but there’s also declining numbers of specialist student support staff to whom students can be referred.”

Move to online makes personal connection more difficult

Purdy says that the nature of vocational teaching has changed significantly, with most courses now having some sort of online component. “In many courses, particularly outside of trades, most of the theory is now done online,” says Purdy, adding that student learning platforms such as Canvas also host a large proportion of student teacher communication, which can be disengaging. This model reduces the time that teachers spend with their students face-to-face to sometimes a few hours a week, she says. “When teachers aren’t in the same physical space as their students, it’s more difficult to build that personal relationship where you can pick up issues early on.” Students having difficulties might stop attending, cut classes (whether online or face- to-face) or stop sending in work for assessment, she says. “With less time to get to know your students, it’s harder to have personal conversations about what’s going on in their life, and what kind of support you can provide,” Purdy says – causing stress for both students and for their teachers.

Global perspective on online learning

In a 2021 study on the global impact on higher education from the pandemic from the University of Alberta, education scholar Stephen Murgatroyd writes that as online learning replaced face-to-face learning, technology vendors claimed it was “a moment of transformation when Head in the right direction: Mental health and wellbeing in the spotlight TAFE Teachers are at the front line of a mental health crisis in VET students – but often need support themselves. THE AUSTRALIAN TAFE TEACHER • 25 colleges and universities shifted from being predominantly about interpersonal relational teaching and learning, to becoming technology-enabled, hybridlearning organisations.”3 But Murgatroyd cautions there is little evidence that technology innovations improve teaching and learning, and that “the transformation conversation is more about privatisation, efficiency and scale than it is about authentic learning and engaged teaching.” The study points out that governments worldwide now expect higher education systems to “do more with less;” and as institutions increasingly rely on part-time contingent teaching staff, the nature of the teacher–student relationship changes. “Placing the learner at the centre and marginalising the work of teaching, shifts attention away from the teacherstudent-knowledge relationship, towards the relationship between the student and “content,” isolating the learner from community, peers, social networks and challenge,” warns Murgatroyd.

Student stress on the rise

Dr Vivienne Decleva, a nurse educator at Victoria University Polytechnic with a PhD in adult education and postgraduate qualifications in positive psychology, has worked in the TAFE sector since 2006. Decleva says that she has seen a big change in the student cohort over the past decade and a half, and says that many students come into class, exhausted from work and looking after family as well as keeping up with study. “Many of our students are in much more difficult circumstances that they were in ten years ago, experiencing a lot of stress and needing compassion and far more support.” Decleva points out that vocational teaching has a strong emotional component as teachers model the behaviours that their students will take into future workplaces – and that how students are taught is even more important than what they are taught. “Teachers who bring students into the profession of nursing help to develop them as a person before they develop them as a nurse, giving them a lot of support, a lot of encouragement, a lot of acceptance, modelling empathy and good communication, so our students learn to adopt those behaviours because they trust us,” she says. Decleva says that there is now greater awareness by both teachers and students, of the role of mental health in education. Teaching is a demanding profession – but it is also a vocation, she says, and since teachers give a lot of themselves because they love what they do, they’re more vulnerable to burnout. “It can be soul-destroying when you don’t feel supported or acknowledged for the work that you have done and can really burn you out and make you tired.”

Workload intensification

David Terauds agrees that today’s vocational students are more stressed overall – and adds that this extends to teachers too, particularly when structural change across most courses has led to intensified workloads. “Providers have increased the number of units that teachers have to deliver, which also increases the associated assessment and the associated preparation, so while the nominal hours may still be the same, the workload is much higher,” he says. Providers are looking at how to deliver units more cheaply, he adds – so shifting work online to reduce class-hours is often the only option when there are caps on student numbers in classes. But with the quality of much of the online learning materials not always great, many students find it challenging to learn online without support, particularly if they have low motivation, or face a digital divide or low literacy. According to the OECD, over 40 per cent of Australian adults have literacy levels below the international standard needed to participate in work, education and society.4 “What ends up happening is the deferral of workload into an unpaid space when teachers are endeavouring to do the best they can for students by sacrificing their own time – and that’s leading to burnout and to increased teachers leaving the profession,” Terauds says. Michelle Purdy concurs – adding that structural changes aimed at cost-cutting, such as the introduction of teachers in tutoring or assessment-only roles, has been stressful for both students and teachers. “More and more of our students are presenting with mental health issues, and we need better resources in place to help teachers support their students – but also to support the teachers themselves,” she says.

Article by Fran Molloy

This article was originally published in The Australian TAFE Teacher, Summer 2022